Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Friday endorsed the idea of combining two of the Democrats’ top legislative priorities — aid to Ukraine and new funding for COVID-19 relief — into one package next month, citing the urgency to move swiftly on both.
That strategy is being considered by Senate Democratic leaders, who see the popular Ukraine assistance as a could-be sweetener for the more controversial health care funding, which Republicans have threatened to block amid the partisan fight over President Biden’s pandemic policies at the Southern border.
The immigration impasse has led some Democrats to warn against linking the Ukraine and coronavirus funding, for fear of delaying crucial aid to the embattled Ukrainians just as Russian forces have escalated their attacks in the Eastern Donbas region.
Pelosi on Friday emphasized that the negotiations are currently centered in the Senate, not the House. But she also made clear that she’d prefer to have the two funding bills packaged together for reasons of expediency.
“I’m all for that,” the Speaker told reporters in the Capitol. “I think it’s very important. We have emergencies here. We need to have the COVID money, and time is of the essence because we need the Ukraine money. … So I would hope that we can do that.”
“This is called legislating,” she continued, “and we’ll have to come to terms on how we do that.”
Biden on Thursday asked Congress to authorize an additional $33 billion to help Ukraine fend off Russia’s attacks, marking a sharp escalation in the U.S. involvement in the conflict. The request has so far been warmly received by lawmakers in both parties, who are eager to defend Ukraine, a democratic ally, from the tyrannical advances of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The COVID-19 funding is much more contentious.
The White House had initially asked for $22.5 billion in additional pandemic funding — a figure that was whittled down to $10 billion in the Senate. But even the lower amount has become ensnared in the thorny politics of immigration, as Republicans are bashing Biden for his plan to revoke a Trump-era rule that had slowed the flow of migrants in the name of protecting public health.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said the current health threat has diminished, allowing for the elimination of the guidelines, known as Title 42, in late May. Republicans are vowing to oppose the new pandemic funding unless the administration reverses course and keeps the restrictions in place — a reversal Biden has rejected outright.
Pelosi on Friday defended the elimination of Title 42, noting that its removal will simply reinstall the border laws that were in place prior to March 2020 — laws that immigration policy experts say will discourage migration more forcefully than Title 42 does.
“President Biden did the right thing, to substitute something that is more effective at the border, to protect our border, and to accept our responsibility to welcome refugees or asylum-seekers to our country,” Pelosi said.
Still, she also suggested that Senate negotiators are working on a compromise that would replace Title 42 restrictions will new guidelines agreeable to both parties.
“My understanding is that the Senate is working on other language that serves the purpose at the border, but is not Title 42,” she said.
As the House heads into a weeklong recess, party leaders are watching closely to see how the COVID debate affects the Ukraine aid, warning against any undue delays.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said the prospect that combining the two bills could delay them both is “a real consideration” that will likely influence the ultimate strategy.
“I don’t want to slow down. Ukraine needs the aid,” he said. “Yesterday would be later than we should have done it.”